School districts across the country continue to facing mounting budget cuts, leaving both administrators and educators scrambling to fill budgetary gaps while providing students with a quality educational experience. And given the nation’s focus on developing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills, CIOs, principals and teachers are expected to maintain state-of-the-art technology-infused classrooms that meet the learning needs of tech-savvy students.
With district and state funds drying up, grants are becoming an increasingly important means for funding technology in schools and classrooms.
Technology-focused grants can be offered by state and federal governmental agencies, charitable foundations and companies. The size of grants can range from $250 up to the millions of dollars, depending on the funder and the program.
In addition to securing more than $138 million in grants, I also regularly work as a professional proposal reviewer for state, federal and private funders so I am thoroughly knowledgeable about the entire process. In my experience only about three to five percent of all grant proposals are awarded funding. And with the increased demand, there is increased competition for funds, which makes the grant seeking process much more difficult. Now more than ever, only the ‘best of the best’ proposals will get funded. The loss of just a single scoring point can make the difference between success and failure.
Based on my experiences as both a writer and reviewer, I would like to share some tips to help you write a winning technology proposal that gets funded.
Regardless of whether the funder is a governmental agency, a foundation or a corporation, the grant seeking process is essentially the same. The funder or funding agency publishes a request for proposals (RFP) that outlines the basics such as size of awards, focus areas, eligible uses of funds, proposal requirements, due dates and the criteria by which proposals will be chosen for funding. The first step in the grant seeking process is to carefully read through the RFP.
First, be sure to review the funding agency’s giving priorities to be certain that your project is a fit. Usually, the funder will have general giving priorities and then outline specific types of projects that it is seeking to fund. Carefully review the guidelines to verify that both your school is eligible to apply for funding and that your project is a fit with the funder’s interests. If there is not a match, don’t waste your time developing a proposal because it will not get reviewed. Funders receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of grant proposals each year and will not consider proposals that are outside the scope of their funding priorities.
Be certain to follow the instructions outlined in the RFP or funding announcement.
This seems obvious but in reality, not following the given instructions is the number one reason that grant proposals do not get funded. In many cases an applicant ignores a question or does not provide a requested attachment. If a question does not apply to your school, organization or situation, never leave it blank. Instead, at the very least write ‘not applicable’ or provide a brief explanation why the question does not apply.
Remember that ‘lack of technology’ is never the problem.
Funders will not be swayed by the fact that students don’t have iPads or other technologies in the classroom. Rather, they want to know about the challenges students face and how those challenges are impacting their lives and academic performance. The goal when writing a need statement is to present a clear, concise statement that relates directly to the problem the project is trying to resolve. Quantify the problem using recent, local, relevant data.
When describing technologies or innovation, always focus on the benefits not the features.
Tablets, smart devices, videoconferencing, mobile applications and other technological innovations offer an amazing array of exciting new features. However, funders aren’t interested in the features but rather, how the technologies engage students and directly support improved learning or attainment of the project’s goals. For example, interactive videoconferencing technologies can bridge gaps by providing access to a vast array of global content and resources. Be creative but always keep the focus on the benefits the technologies provide for students and how they support the learning or engagement process.
Provide measurable outcomes for the project.
Outcomes must always be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-specific (SMART). A successful grant proposal always includes clearly-stated outcomes that can be measured and quantified. If you cannot quantify (measure) the outcome then it’s not measurable and you should head back to the drawing board. Here are some examples of measurable outcomes: we will conduct five outreach sessions; the program will provide technology training for 100 disadvantaged youth; or at least 75% of program participants will achieve a passing score on the ABC standardized test.
Include a plan to evaluate your project
Funders are interested in outcomes–you need to demonstrate how and when you are going to measure your progress. For example, if you say that your program will provide technology training for 100 disadvantaged youth then you need to explain how you will track the number served (sign-in sheets, activity logs, etc.). Additionally, you will need to show how you will measure (e.g., survey, pre- and post-test, etc.) improvements in participants’ knowledge or skill level after they participate in the training.
Tell the reviewers how you intend to sustain your program or project beyond the grant-funded period.
Foundations and other funders are like venture capitalists in that they are interested in making investments in programs and projects that will be around for the long-term and have a lasting impact. Building sustainability into your project plan from the start is critical to successful grant seeking. Be as specific as possible when describing your plans for sustaining the project beyond the funding period. If the funder allows attachments or appendices you can include letters committing to sustaining the program from your board, leadership, project partners and other funders.
Never use a boilerplate proposal or take a shotgun approach.
Every funding program has its own unique priorities and areas of focus. During the review process reviewers score each section of the proposal based on how well it addresses a specific focus or priority outlined in the RFP. A template or boiler plate will most likely not be aligned the proposal requirements and when key information is not where it is expected to be, critical points are lost. A strategic, highly-targeted school technology grant seeking approach will be much more effective than a random shotgun approach.
Here are a few more tips for winning over grant proposal reviewers:
- Use bullet points and tables wherever possible
- Use recent data and cite sources
- Make the proposal more readable by including plenty of whitespace between paragraphs an sections
- Use bold type or other formatting (e.g., italics, underline, larger font, etc.) to identify review criteria (e.g., Project Management, Evaluation Plan, etc.) and key concepts
- Never make the reviewer ‘hunt’ for important information or review criteria
While nothing can guarantee with 100% certainty that a grant proposal will get funded, follow these suggestions and you will be far ahead of the competition.